Jesuit Wisdom

Nothing is more practical than finding God, that is, than falling in a love in a quite absolute, final way. What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination will affect everything. It will decide what will get you out of bed in the mornings, what you will do with your evenings, how you spend your weekends, what you read, who you know, what breaks your heart, and what amazes you with joy and gratitude. Fall in love, stay in love, and it will decide everything. –Pedro Arrupe, SJ

I am not particularly religious, but Fr. Arrupe speaks the truth — no matter where your passions lie. Every beautiful moment in my life can be explained by this quote.

Navy Match

The Armed Forces match results are being posted today. Navy is the only hold-out as of right now.

….the wait is KILLING me!

Life, Death, and Humanity, Part I

Our tour guides walked briskly past it on the first day of orientation, but I’m sure all of us took a moment to peek in the gross anatomy lab. I remember seeing four large, square rooms, bright fluorescent lights set into the acoustic tile ceiling like any other classroom. There were large stainless steel sinks against the far walls, with light boxes hung along the side walls. The linoleum-tiled floor of each room was mostly occupied by large, stainless steel dissecting tables, each one surrounded by a handful of stools. The tables were bare and clean, their brushed surfaces dully reflecting the lights above. Being unoccupied as such, the lab looked and felt rather unremarkable. The tour moved on and we didn’t give the labs much more thought. That was on a Tuesday, almost exactly one year ago.

I was walking down the same hallway with a friend on the following Thursday, and we noticed the doors to the labs were propped open. The rooms were equipped the same as they were on Tuesday, except for one thing — each table was fully draped by a large denim cloth, with the unmistakable silhouette of a human — the peak of the scalp, the slight undulation from abdomen to waist, the valley separating the legs from each other — filling out each one from underneath. The difference was stark and somewhat unsettling. The rooms somehow felt quieter, our footsteps duller and less reverberated. I remember smelling the preserving fluid for the first time, the faint burn in my nostrils combined with something that I could only describe as chemical. It was an incredibly solemn place to stand, and I didn’t quite know how to feel. We saw the lab coordinator making his way through another room, so we quickly waved and left.

We were back in there the following Monday, all of us, having changed into scrubs in the locker-lined hallway and found our way to our assigned tables. The labs were cold, of course, and there was a lot of uneasy, friendly chatter as we shook hands and waited for directions. There was a brief convocation (hey, it’s a Jesuit school) followed by a few Powerpoint slides. We were to start by dissecting the superficial (outermost) layers of the back, which meant that our cadavers were currently face-down. The presetation wrapped up, and we were free to start.

Most people know that medical school involves cadavers, and when it comes up in conversation, most people have a notion of how they’d feel about dissecting a human body. Some simply shudder, eyes closed, and come up with phrases like, “I could never do that.” I’ve also seen people lean forward excitedly, saying something more akin to, “that would be amazing!” I had always been firmly in the latter camp, but a certain amount of anxiety did start to build in the moments before we started that day. The butterflies in my gut reminded me that I was about to do something that, while fascinating and definitively medical, was also somewhat macabre and even taboo in some pockets of the world. But that’s all it was, just butterflies. I can’t remember if my hands were steady — I suspect they had a slight tremble — but they grasped the edge of the covering fabric and pulled it back. Underneath the denim was a layer of thick plastic, in order to keep the cadaver moist; under that, a muslin cloth wrapped around the body to retain the preserving fluid against the skin. The hands, feet, and head head were wrapped in their own layers of muslin and plastic, keeping those regions in good shape until we got to them later in the course. But the majority of the body, from the neck down to the legs, was now exposed.

I remember my somewhat anticlimactic reaction at the moment the sheets were pulled back. My eyes widened for just an instant, accompanied by a brief flash of surprise and perhaps fear. But after that, the butterflies faded away, and I felt normal, which was itself rather bizarre to me. I mean, I was standing, with three of my classmates, in front of a dead body. And I was about to cut into that body.

The thing is, like most medical school classes, gross anatomy is very fast-paced. The lab sessions are usually long enough to complete the day’s objectives, but there isn’t much time to look up structures or read through the instructions for the first time. One needs to enter the lab prepared, work efficiently on the cadaver, review along the way, and clean up. There really isn’t enough time to reflect or to dread; you just have to do. And do we did, with a surprising lack of hesitation. Really, after the first cut, the rest became almost mechanical.

It was only outside the lab that we had an opportunity to think about what we were doing. And while I’d love to go into this level of detail on all of them, I’d probably be writing about Gross Anatomy for the rest of the year. Instead, I’m going to hit on some of the highlights from my time in the lab, and do my best to keep the grisly details to a minimum. There are some things I just have to write down, lest I forget them in the hustle of the coming year.

Worth It

(As of today, there are 12 days until classes begin for my second year. I guess the pressure’s on to write what I promised to write, eh?)

I’ve only completed one year of medical school thus far, which sadly puts me much closer to the beginning of my training than the end. But I’m already deep into it — I left my first career in May of 2004, which means that I’ve already devoted three years of time, money, and sweat equity to medicine. Last summer, anyone who asked me whether I’d made a good decision probably received a confused or noncomittal reply. Sure, I enjoyed my post-bacc year, and I was eager to become a physician, but I was still technically a pre-med. I had no way of knowing whether I’d actually enjoy medical school, whether I would complete the year satisfied that I’d chosen the right path for myself, or whether I’d made yet another professional mistake. Well, times have changed. I’m now a full-blown medical student, and I’ve managed to complete my first year without any major crises. So was it worth everything? Did I make the right choice?

The answer, at least this year, is unequivocally yes.

The hours were long. The material, while not tricky, was voluminous and incredibly fast. Some of the classes were tedious, some were interminable, and some felt like they were impossible to understand in the given time. Some of our lecturers were unintelligible, others just incomprehensible. There was a lot of sleeping in class, in the library, and at home with my neck crooked unnaturally over my notes. There was far too little sleep overall. There were some moments of panic.

But there was also an amazing realization. Despite all of the things that med students (sometimes rightfully) complain about, despite the unbelievable demands of our time and energy, I loved almost every day. I was surrounded by people like me, studying topics that fascinated me, imbibing a culture of science and art that I had sought for years. While I liked most of my old coworkers, and made some great friends to boot, I never felt like I belonged in the office. Here, sitting in even the driest of lectures, I am finally an integral part of the fabric. I understand what drives my classmates, and they in turn understand me. This is all the more remarkable when I consider that I’m significantly older and in a completely different social situation from most of them, which separates me from interacting very much with them outside of class. It’s a great feeling, knowing that I belong.

There are some moments that stick out in my mind from last year, some things that I intend not to forget. Things like:

  • Pondering biology, life, and death through Gross Anatomy
  • My reaction to neuroscience — the de-romanticizing of the psyche
  • Feeling like I was gasping for breath, struggling just to pass at times
  • The comical notion that I could take control over my sleep
  • My weird place in the social network of our class
  • The real costs of being a medical student, which barely start with tuition

I will expound on these in the days to come. Seriously, I will. I can’t go into second year with all of this stuff on the back-burner! There are also some mostly-complete posts that I started back in August. They need to be touched up and published as well. But for now, just know this: Going to medical school was the best professional decision I’ve ever made. On a career basis, I don’t regret leaving the consulting world for one second.

Done!

One last buzz from the timer in the anatomy lab, one last mark on my Scantron. As of 3:00 this afternoon, I am officially done with my first year of medical school.

To say that it’s been a busy ten months would be stating perhaps the most obvious of truths. Among the things I neglected was this blog, whose readership almost certainly has gone negative by now. (That’s right — people have managed to unread my blog.) I have a lot of things to share, and perhaps I will finally have the time to share them this summer. Tonight, though, I plan to sleep. Expect more soon.

Light of the Fireflies

The school year ends in less than a month, but it promises to be rather busy. In lieu of real content, I can only offer this bit of emailed trivia that I found entertaining:

When most North Americans hear the Scottish folksong Auld Lang Syne we probably immediately think of New Year’s Eve…. Hotaru no Hikari, or Light of the Fireflies, is the title of the Japanese version of this song, and in Japan it’s sung at graduations. The chorus tells the story of hard-working students who wanted to study so much that they read books by the light of fireflies captured in a jar, or the moonlight reflected off snow. It can bring a tear to the eyes of Japanese who hear it sung, and a totally different image from one we might conjure up.

Maybe I should translate this song and attempt to get some air play. I bet it would go over really well over here.

Gone

F#@%.

Thursday night was unfolding like most Thursdays do these days, with me buried in my notes and my computer playing wingman with other class related materials on display. I noticed Safari slowing down to an unusual crawl. Tried to reboot, no improvement. Disk Utility reported a “minor” volume header problem with the drive. Rebooted off the Tiger DVD, ran Disk Utility….and discovered that my drive was no longer mountable. Tried to use the TechTool CD that came with my AppleCare plan two years ago, but ten hours of work resulted in nothing.

End result: realize that my AppleCare coverage expires on 4/23; take to Apple Store Friday night; get back on Saturday with new hard drive. All data lost.

Last backup: 1/1/07.

No, this isn’t the end of the world. We’re all alive and healthy, there’s plenty of food in the fridge, and our electricity isn’t going to be cut off any time soon. But much was lost, many articles I’d started and not finished, many photos that are now not even imitable, many documents that Really Should Not Be Lost (like 1040s). Plenty of moments I attempted to catch in writing, snippets of life that are probably impossible to describe perfectly, but are most definitely impossible to recount perfectly months later. Things I Want To Remember, Times I’ll Never Forget. Poof.

Now that the data are unequivocally gone, I find myself wondering if I shouldn’t have at least attempted to recover some of it with an off-the-shelf software product. I’ve never had luck with that route before, but I’m starting to think it would’ve been worth the $100 to find out. Then again, it might have been a waste of $100. I don’t know. Guess it doesn’t f—ing matter any more.

It’s been a shitty day for that and other reasons. Now it’s almost 1 in the morning, I can’t concentrate worth a damn, and I have an exam on Tuesday.

Good night.

Bubbly 2007

(Yes, it’s been a long time. I have much to write about, including two incomplete articles that I started in August. I promise to catch up soon.)

To celebrate the coming year, I went out tonight and purchased a bottle of Paul Goerg Demi-Sec champagne. According to the company website, this is a non-vintage champagne comprising 60% Chardonnay and 40% Pinot Noir grapes. Upon popping open the bottle, I was greeted by a yeasty, bready aroma — the artifact of the addition of liqueur de tirage to the bottle in the first steps of its production, and a telling sign that this wine was indeed from the Champagne region. The wine emerged a pale gold, pouring into the flute with a generous froth that gave way to a steady stream of very small beads rising from the bottom. After a few minutes, the nose developed to include slight undertones of honey and sweet flowers. The bubble proved lively on the tongue, as they should, complementing the relative sweetness and weight of this demi-sec wine. There was a predominant citrus character interlaced with juicy pear, giving way to a tangy and slightly dry finish. In fact, while I know that French demi-secs still run somewhat dry, I was a little surprised by the tannin-like sensations that lingered on the palate.

This is a modestly priced bottle of champagne, in line with most French non-vintage offerings. As such, it offers a nicely balanced taste profile and presents a good value for the money. Within its price range, it stands up very well for itself. We used it mostly as an apertif, but also in combination with buttered home-made bread to great success. I think it would also work with lighter, somewhat fatty dishes that would benefit from the bright acidity and fruitiness of the wine.

Happy New Year! I’ll save the deep reflections for another day; for now, let’s just look forward to 2007 and face the future with good cheer.

Last Week

Last Sunday morning, Kim turned to me and asked, “So what do you want to do on your last day?” She was referring to the start of orientation, which officially ended last Friday. A welcome brunch today capped off the week, and I’m just a few hours away from my first lecture as a medical student.

Orientation had its moments. Monday was spent on an optional trip to a local beach, since the best way to get to know a bunch of strangers is to stand half-naked in the sun. The rest of the week comprised days of lecture-style information sessions interspersed with small group activities, followed by nightly social events. None of this was surprising, but I found a few things to be rather unexpected.

On the objective side, I was disappointed in the lack of concrete information made available to us throughout the week. Most of us had just a few very common concerns at the tops of our minds — where and when lectures will be held, what books to buy, how to prepare for our first gross anatomy lab. None of these questions were answered clearly (or at all) during the day. We were left to find a lot of the information on our own, or to glean little bits from other groups with more proactive advisors. Our gross anatomy syllabus was made available to us on Thursday, but word was spread entirely by mouth. I certainly appreciated some of the other material that was presented during orientation, but would it have been so difficult to provide us with a few stapled sheets of essential info? I suspect this was just a simple oversight or misunderstanding on the part of the orientation planners, and I doubt they intended to leave us all confused; nevertheless, the lack of clarity in this very basic area left me feeling rather anxious about my classes.

Speaking of anxiety, I definitely noticed fluctuations in my mood and temperament over the last couple of weeks. Where I would have characterized myself as excited and relaxed about medical school over the past several months, I think the reality of the situation began to pound its way into my mind recently, perhaps making things seem worse than they may actually be. The school work isn’t scaring me; I expected an academic challenge, and I’m fairly confident that I can handle the workload. I think my biggest fears come from the other facets of my life and my absolute need to maintain a balance between school and family. I must somehow reconcile the need to study for hours on end with the need for me to remain a husband and a father. In these days before the start of clases, I think my fears are getting the best of me; I’ve worried constantly about remaining a role model for Emmy, remaining a true partner to Kim. It didn’t help that I had no clue where, when, or how long I would be on campus.

Well, at least my schedule is set now. Embryology lecture begins tomorrow at 10:00, followed by gross anatomy. In the last day of presentations during orientation, I began to feel the familiar surges of adrenaline and excitement that kept me running through my post-bacc classes. I’m pretty sure that I’m ready to hit the ground running, and that I’m emotionally prepared to give medical school my 110% effort. And once my schedule settles down, I think I’ll feel more comfortable about my new role as a husband-father-student.

There’s only one way to know for sure.

Quandary of the Magi, Part 1

Want to know where I’m going to school in the fall? Read on!

Nearly everyone in this country with a high school education is familiar with O. Henry, and, by extension, his most famous short story: The Gift of the Magi. I’ve read a few of his other stories and I find them mostly forgettable, perhaps dated beyond their relevance. Magi, however, stays with me and continues to pop up in my thoughts. There’s something about that perfectly ironic ending, poignant to the point of melodramatic, but also sincere and heartwarming. I recently picked up an old compendium of O. Henry stories and re-read the story. What caught my attention this time was not the plot but the final paragraph, in which the author takes his time to explain the title. He suggests that Jim and Della did, in fact, give each other the perfect Christmas gifts that night. The leather strap for a pawned watch, the tortoise shell combs for tresses now gone — these essentially worthless items were symbols of the priceless gifts they did bestow on each other. When O. Henry mentions the “greatest treasures of their house,” I believe he means their willingness to give up their most prized belongings and beliefs for the sake of their cherished loved one. The immaterial, invaluable spiritual gift of sacrifice is the true gift of the magi, perhaps the most important ever given.

One problem I have with Magi is that the its perfect ending is almost never duplicated in real life. The story is made all the more poignant to me because, in real life, both parties seldom share the combined joy and anguish of the “O. Henry ending.” And so would it be with the medical school decision, one that has taken far longer and consumed far more of our patience and goodwill than Kim or I expected. The question was not whether a sacrifice was necessary, but rather, who would make it? Who would compromise their personal beliefs for the sake of the other, and who would benefit from the sacrifice?

This August I will enter the Georgetown University School of Medicine, class of 2010.

I withdrew the last of my other acceptances on May 12, sliding in just under the AAMC deadline of the 15th. This means that the decision process took somewhere around seven months, blowing past the original deadline of January 1 and just about every other deadline we set after that. I had originally planned to explain what happened in those seven months at the top of this entry, but it ended up being incredibly long and perhaps too boring for people who just wanted to know the ending. I’ve decided instead to put this up now and post the second part of the story in the near future. For now, though, break out the blue and grey. Blair bleeds Hoya blue! (But not before he bleeds Big Red. Or something like that.)